By Just How Much Are The Cubs Underperforming?

Going into the season, the Chicago Cubs were not only the defending champions, but they had nearly the same exact roster as the 103 win team from the year before. They were a clear favorite to run away with the NL Central, with Fangraphs predicting a 97 win 2017 just after they had won the 2016 World Series.  All that really seemed left was the formality of winning the NLDS and NLCS to get to the World Series once again. But that is why the games are actually played.

Through 58 games this season, the Cubs have a record of 30-28, a game behind the Milwaukee Brewers, sitting in second place. The way the Cubs are set up, you’d think they would be the ones 13 games in their division, not just the Astros.

There are some key reasons the Cubs are sitting in the middle of the pack in the National League this season. For one, the excellent pitching they had last season just isn’t clicking the way it did in 2016. Comparing 2016 to 2017, the Cubs had a 3.15 ERA (1st), 3.77 FIP (5th), and 20.4 fWAR (4th) last season, but have fallen to a 4.00 ERA (8th), 4.05 FIP (10th), and 5.9 fWAR (12th).

For another, instead of their offense being at the top of the leaderboards as it was in 2016, it is currently in the bottom half of the league with only a 93 wRC+, 20th in the MLB. Last season their 106 team wRC+ was 3rd in all of the MLB.

As expected, the pre-season Steamer projections were very high on the Cubs. For position players, there were seven players projected at 2.3 or higher WAR. On the pitching side, four of their starters were projected at 2.7 WAR or higher, with another three pitchers sitting between 1 and 1.3 WAR. However as we’ve seen above, the 2017 MLB season has seen several Cubs players underperform their projections, and it’s really hurt their record.

Below are some of the key offenders:

Schwarber Steamer Value Proj. 0.264 0.353 0.49 124 2.8
Current Value 0.175 0.297 0.381 82 -0.1
R.O.S. Value Proj. 0.241 0.341 0.457 113 1.4
Change In Value -1.5
Russell Steamer Value Proj. 0.247 0.321 0.417 96 3.4
Current Value 0.209 0.291 0.335 67 0.2
R.O.S. Value Proj. 0.246 0.321 0.417 96 2.1
Change In Value -1.1
Hendricks Steamer Value Proj. 3.69 3.75 3
Current Value 4.09 4.42 0.6
R.O.S. Value Proj. 3.91 3.94 1.6
Change In Value -0.8
Lackey Steamer Value Proj. 3.98 3.9 2.7
Current Value 5.12 5.04 0.3
R.O.S. Value Proj. 4.18 4.07 1.5
Change In Value -0.9

The above charts have four levels. The first being the original Steamer projection. The second being the value they have put up through the first 58 games of the 2017 season. The third is the player’s rest of season Steamer projection. The fourth is the overall change in value from original projection to what they have done combined with what they are projected to do the rest of the season.

These are not the only players on the team to be projected less value than originally thought, but they these are the four worst cases. Ben Zobrist‘s overall change in projected value is half a win. Jake Arrieta‘s is -0.3. Mike Montgomery‘s is -0.6. Brett Anderson’s is -0.8! But as mentioned, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey are a big part of why this team isn’t running away with the NL Central at the moment.

Diving even further into the numbers, I took any Cubs position player that was projected for more than 100 PA, and calculated their total projected value at 26.9 WAR. Next I added up the fWAR those players have already accumulated, as well as added the remaining projected WAR for the rest of the season. The graph below is going to show this information as well as the prorated WAR projected through 58 games and how well the Cubs have lived up to that:

Steamer Value Proj. 26.9
Steamer Value Projection Updated 24.4
R.O.S. Value Proj. 17.4
Total Season Change In Projection Value -2.5
Approximate Expected Value Through 58 games 11.5
Actual value through 58 games 7
% of projected WAR reached through 58 games 61

Next, I took a look at pitchers for anyone projected to throw at least 35+ innings and did the same thing:

Steamer Value Proj. 20.8
Steamer Value Projection Updated 17.5
R.O.S. Value Proj. 11.6
Total Season Change In Projection Value -3.3
Approximate Expected Value Through 58 games 7.5
Actual value through 58 games 5.9
% of projected WAR reached through 58 games 78.66

Lastly, we have the Cubs current wins vs the Cubs expected wins:

Cubs wins through 58 games 30
Cubs win % through 58 games 0.508
Expected Cubs wins 97
Expected Cubs wins through 58 games 35
Expected Cubs win % through 58 games 0.599
% of projected wins reached through 58 games 85.7

Starting with the position players, to this point in the season they are nearly a whopping 40% off from their pre-season Steamer projections. The pitching has done a better job of staying closer to their projections, but even they are over 20% off as well. Luckily for the Cubs, they are only around 14% off from their expected wins to this point.

Some good news is that Steamer still loves the Cubs going forward. Steamer expects improved offense from Schwarber, Russell, Rizzo, Zobrist, Heyward, and Contreras for the rest of the season. They also expect better pitching from Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey, Lester, and some others. Even if Steamer is right about these players, the Cubs will earn an expected 24.4 out of 26.9 projected WAR for positions players, and 17.5 out of 20.8 projected WAR for pitchers. If this happens, it is very unlikely that the Cubs would reach the lofty 97 wins that Fangraphs had them at post-2016 World Series, but it would likely put them around 88-90 wins, well enough to take the middling NL Central.

One thing I would be worried about is Steamer over-projecting some of these players despite two-plus months of below average play, but talent does usually win out. Kyle Schwarber has too much offensive talent to hit under a 100 wRC+ for long. Odds are that all four of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey won’t be pitching under their projections for the entire season. Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist aren’t great hitters, but they are certainly better than what they have been showing.

The Cubs certainly have not played to their sky-high potential by early June in this 2017 MLB season, that is clear. As mentioned earlier, it is unlikely they will end up near 100 wins based off of their slow start as well. But if the projections are to be trusted, the Cubs may soon be coming on a hot streak and finally taking hold of the NL Central that is just waiting for a team to take it.